I had a strange dream this morning. I was helping a new employee who had just been hired in our department. We worked comfortably together but then, at the end of the workday (as can happen in dreams), I suddenly realized that this new worker was actually a former colleague. How did I not recognize her?
In the past my former co-worker, “Cathy,” had caused great disruption and chaos in our department. She had felt like an adversary to many of us. But since I had no recollection of this in my dream, we began our “first” day at work together with ease and collegiality. My dream-state-temporary-amnesia allowed me to treat Cathy with warmth. If I had recognized her, our interaction would have been much different.
How many conflicts could be averted if we had selective amnesia with our rivals or foes?
Our conversations would then be free of the tiny microexpressions and unconscious vocal tones that send out defensive messages (despite our best intentions). The problem is, our brain scrutinizes our environment for threats and then sears these threat-memories deep into our mind — for our protection. Our brain doesn’t want us to have amnesia precisely because we would then be more vulnerable to dangers around us.
Emotional Intelligence theories and techniques help us understand our brain’s design. We can then, depending on our circumstances, work to utilize or circumvent our evolutionary programming.
While we can never have complete amnesia about past events, we can at least be conscious of our feelings. These can give us a clue to the unconscious signals we are probably sending. That is why self-fulfilling prophecies work. If I come into a conversation anticipating the worst — my expectations are likely to be fulfilled because of the signals I’ve sent.
Even if we can’t control our unconscious nonverbal behaviors, we can try to compensate for them.
If I were to meet with Cathy today, I could emphasize listening, eye contact, smiles, and a gentle tone of voice to counteract other signals I may inadvertently send. Then we might have the same easy relating that we had in my dream.
Destructive patterns of interacting are very hard to change since both parties become stuck in patterns of aggressive or defensive signals. Still, knowing our feelings can help us break these patterns and create new exchanges with our coworkers.
Editor’s note: this article was originally published August 20, 2009